'Nu Shooz's "I Can't Wait" turns 30.'
By Matthew Singer, Willamette Week February 16, 2016
For a song to achieve immortality, it's going to need an especially sharp hook.
Sometimes it's a riff. Sometimes it's a melody. In the case of Nu Shooz's "I Can't Wait," it's the sound of Donald Duck scatting through a vocoder.
God knows what the keyboard preset is actually labeled. But you'd recognize it before the prominent bassline, or even the title. It wasn't even the band's idea—a Dutch DJ threw it on a remix—but it was the missing piece that, in 1986, propelled a regional Portland hit into a global smash. Even in its original form, "I Can't Wait" is the platonic ideal of a classic '80s song: timeless in its blend of fat-bottom funk and R&B elegance, but with just enough retro-futurist kitsch to immediately evoke the era.
As two self-professed "jazz hippies," singer Valerie Day and songwriter John Smith admittedly had no idea what went into creating a pop single. So how did they end up writing the biggest song ever to come out of Portland? Turns out it was, at first, mostly an act of desperation.
By 1983, Nu Shooz was in a rut. It had been playing clubs since the late '70s, drawing good crowds but failing to sustain a lineup or a consistent musical direction. In December, John Smith dedicated himself to rerouting the band back to its R&B roots.
John Smith: The mission statement was to write the funkiest thing that I could, and kind of blow all the dust out of the exhaust pipe and get us back to what we're supposed to be doing. I rented a four-track machine for the incredible sum of $24 per month, and the first reel, "I Can't Wait," was on it. There were five tunes I was working on, sitting on a wooden box by the furnace in the basement with a nylon string guitar. In the summer of '84, we went into the studio, and the first thing I did was slow it way down. It laid there like a lump.
Valerie Day: It was slower than the live version we'd been playing. I remember coming into the studio the day it was my turn to record the vocals, and I hadn't heard he'd slowed it down. I get into the studio, and I was like, "I can't sing this."
Smith: For about six months, we tinkered with it. Then, on the way to the studio one day, I was listening to the Time, and they had this bottle part on "Jungle Love." I appropriated that, put it on the track, and then it started to move.
"I Can't Wait" ended up as one of five songs on Nu Shooz's second official release, an EP recorded at Cascade Recording in Portland.
Day: We get these five songs recorded, we put this on a cassette called Tha's Right, and we release it on our own, basically. And nothing, really, was happening. Except this music writer, for The Downtowner magazine in Portland, he wrote about the band and said we were boring live, but we had made this really cool thing, and it was a shame local radio wouldn't play it.
Gary Bryan, co-host of KKRZ's morning show: We read the article and went on the air. They mentioned Nu Shooz in the article, and we were like, "We'd love to play it, but we can't play it if we don't have it." No one ever brought it in.
Day: Our manager at the time, who was a bartender at the Veritable Quandary, he was a morning person, thank God. So he heard this on the radio. He jumped on his Vespa, he drove it to the station, handed them the cassette, and they picked "I Can't Wait" to play.
Bryan: The next day, we put it on the air. We made a big deal out of it. A lot of people started calling for it, and we put it into heavy rotation. It came up every hour and 45 minutes or something. We took it to No. 1 on our chart, and that meant we were reporting that to radio and record magazines, and to Billboard. And we thought, "Let's get these guys a record deal. Let's try to bust a band out of Portland!"
After hearing "I Can't Wait," Greg Lee, a local promo manager for Warner Bros., became a champion for the band in the Pacific Northwest, helping spread the song across the region.
Greg Lee: I took it to several Portland radio stations and played it for them, and they all agreed, immediately, like, "You need to get this to us!" That was the impetus for myself. I wanted this to be on Warner Bros.
Day: Greg also got us a demo deal with Warner Bros. We recorded some songs we'd had for a while, and the label said, "Sorry, we've got Madonna already."
Lee: Usually, when a label passes, they don't offer you anything other than "C'est la vie." [Michael Ostin, head of Warner Bros. A&R] gave the band what was called a demo deal. That was a financial gift, so to speak—an honorarium, given to the band to make another demo. It was sort of like, "We're passing, but we see there's something there."
Striking out with the majors, the band's manager licensed "I Can't Wait" to a service which would do limited pressings geared toward the international market. A Dutch disco label picked it up, and handed the song off to a young DJ named Peter Slaghuis for a remix. He didn't change much, but he did add a curious-sounding synth melody over the top.
Smith: We call it "the barking seal." The first time I heard it, we were playing the University of Southern Oregon in Ashland, and I heard it over the phone. Our manager played it. "Here's the remix, what do you think?" And I liked it because I never in a million years would've thought of that.
Day: We met Peter Slaghuis when he came to New York one time, and he tragically died in an auto accident when he was in his 30s. Much, much later, we found an interview he did where he said he actually didn't like "I Can't Wait" at all. He did as little to it as possible because he didn't really want to work on it.
Smith: The secret Nu Shooz cool test is, if they come up and sing the bassline, they're cool. If they sing the barking seal, they're less cool.
The "Long Vocal Dutch Remix" became a hit in the New York club scene, and finally landed Nu Shooz a deal with Atlantic Records. By June 1986, "I Can't Wait" hit No. 3 on the Billboard charts, leading to appearances on American Bandstand and Soul Train, an international tour and a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. It also opened up other, previously unfathomable opportunities.
Smith: My manager asked me who I most wanted as a sideman, and out of my mouth came, "Oh, Maceo Parker," because he'd been my hero since I was 11 years old. So we recorded with him on the second Atlantic record.
Day: One of our heroes at the time were Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and I think we met them at the Minneapolis Music Awards.
Smith: Jimmy Jam came up to me and said, "We wish we had written that song."
Nu Shooz followed "I Can't Wait" with two other charting singles. But its second album for Atlantic, Told U So, underperformed. A third album was never released.
Smith: They didn't even call us to say they were dropping us. We found out at a show. We met the new Atlantic rep, and he didn't know who we were. I said, "We're on the release schedule for September," and he said, "Uh, I don't think so."
Day: It was kind of hard for them to understand who we were and what we were about and what our potential was. We had three A&R people in that seven-year period, and one of them was the guy who discovered White Lion or whatever.
Nu Shooz in 2013. IMAGE: Phil Isley.
Nu Shooz went on hiatus, with Day and Smith concentrating on raising their son. Beginning in the late '90s, "I Can't Wait" began to take on a second life, appearing on movie soundtracks, getting sampled by Vanessa Williams and 50 Cent and, most recently, remixed by Questlove for a Target ad. Day and Smith are currently working on a new Nu Shooz album, due out this year.
Day: It's kind of a miraculous thing. This song is like our child. We birthed it and raised it to a certain point, and then it went out in a world and now it's doing it's own thing. We obviously had something to do with it, but at a certain point, it's not about you anymore. It's really about the song having its own life.